Veterinary Mobility Act passes Congress

Legislation lifts restrictions on transporting and dispensing controlled substances
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Congress has passed an AVMA-driven measure permitting veterinarians to legally transport controlled substances across state lines and administer them to patients outside locations they have registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The House of Representatives voted July 8 in favor of the Veterinary Medicine Mobility Act as an amendment to the Controlled Substances Act. The bill allows veterinarians to carry and dispense controlled substances as part of the usual course of their veterinary practice beyond the primary locations they have registered with the DEA.

Earlier this year, the Senate unanimously passed its version of the legislation. Both versions allow licensed veterinarians to hold controlled substances registrations in multiple states, regardless of where their principal place of business is located.

President Barack Obama was expected to sign the Veterinary Medicine Mobility Act into law as of press time in July.

The veterinary profession welcomed the bill’s passage, saying veterinarians need no longer fear breaking the law to care for animals. “Today, Congress made it clear that veterinarians are responsible public servants who must be able to use vital medications to treat their patients—no matter the location—so that they receive the best quality care,” then–AVMA President Clark K. Fobian said.

Dr. Kurt Schrader, the Oregon Democrat who co-sponsored the House version with Dr. Ted Yoho, a Florida Republican, called it a victory for veterinarians and for animal health and well-being.

“Ridiculous bureaucratic interference from the DEA would have seriously impeded veterinarians’ ability to properly treat their patients. The Veterinary Medicine Mobility Act will provide veterinarians with the certainty they need to continue providing mobile or ambulatory services for their animal patients,” Dr. Schrader commented.

“As a large animal veterinarian,” Dr. Yoho said, “my operating room wasn’t always in an office. Most times, it was in the field. Expecting ranchers to transport their livestock to a veterinary clinic every time medication is needed is an example of overly burdensome policy created by bureaucrats rather than the folks who know the issue.

“This bill will correct that problem and allow veterinarians to practice their profession without fear of unnecessary government intrusion.”

You’ve got 435 members of House and a hundred in the Senate who find it challenging to agree on anything, but this is an issue that makes sense to everyone. It’s a fairly straightforward fix, there’s a strong need for it, and there was such a broad coalition of groups calling for it.

-Dr. Ashley Shelton-Morgan, assistant director, AVMA Governmental Relations Division

The DEA had long seen veterinarians’ proverbial black bag as an extension of their office and recognized that there are occasions when an animal patient cannot be brought to a veterinarian’s registered location. But in recent years, the agency signaled a new disposition toward enforcing a provision of the Controlled Substances Act against veterinarians to restrict the use and dispensing of controlled substances to registered locations (see JAVMA, June 15, 2012). Under this stricter interpretation of the act, veterinarians would also be required to have a physical address in each state where they have a controlled substances registration.

Rhode Island state veterinarian Dr. Scott Marshall brought the issue to the veterinary profession’s attention in 2009. A large animal veterinarian in Connecticut informed Dr. Marshall the Rhode Island Department of Health had denied him a controlled substances registration because the veterinarian didn’t have an address in that state as was required by DEA. “I figured the Department of Health was applying the rule wrong,” he recalled.

When Dr. Marshall contacted the DEA for clarification, he learned the agency was not mistaken; in fact, veterinarians transporting controlled substances across state lines or beyond registered locations were breaking the law. He alerted his state and regional VMAs and then the AVMA to the problem.

“I wanted to inform all the other veterinarians that, if they’re taking controlled substances across a state line, which is very frequent in New England with ambulatory practitioners—you can’t throw a rock without crossing a state line—they might be in violation of federal law,” Dr. Marshall said.

The AVMA, along with scores of veterinary and animal protection organizations, said the DEA stance was unnecessarily restrictive and burdensome on veterinarians. Nancy Perry, senior vice president of government relations for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, noted that mobile-practice veterinarians perform much of their work in irregular and unpredictable locations.

“Like many others in the animal protection community, the ASPCA relies on mobile and ambulatory veterinarians to provide a broad range of lifesaving services in the field,” Perry said. “Mobile spay-neuter and vaccination clinics, disaster responses, and animal cruelty investigations necessitate travel to remote and underserved communities.”

For more than a year, the AVMA spoke with the DEA and members of Congress to explain how the agency’s interpretation of the Controlled Substances Act hindered veterinarians from providing total veterinary care. The hope was the agency would exempt veterinarians from the requirement. But the DEA’s response was that only an act of Congress would make it legal for veterinarians to transport and use controlled substances outside their registered locations.

A legislative remedy was proposed in April 2013 with the introduction of the Veterinary Medicine Mobility Act in the House by Drs. Schrader and Yoho. The following June, Jerry Moran of Kansas and Angus King of Maine co-sponsored the Senate version of the bill.

The AVMA encouraged members and allied organizations to contact their legislators to co-sponsor the Veterinary Medicine Mobility Act and ran several ads in D.C. publications explaining its importance. A diverse coalition of some 130 organizations rallied around the bill’s passage. Over 27,000 letters were sent to members of Congress in support of the legislation, and 185 members of Congress signed on as co-sponsors of the House version.

Dr. Ashley Shelton-Morgan spearheaded the AVMA’s efforts in Washington to get the legislation enacted. As an assistant director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division, she’s well-acquainted with the challenges of promoting passage of any bill through Congress successfully. The Veterinary Medicine Mobility Act, she said, was different.

“You’ve got 435 members of the House and a hundred in the Senate who find it challenging to agree on anything, but this is an issue that makes sense to everyone. It’s a fairly straightforward fix, there’s a strong need for it, and there was such a broad coalition of groups calling for it,” Dr. Shelton-Morgan said.

Dr. Marshall considers the bill’s passage a victory for all veterinarians. “I feel good, not personally, but on behalf of my profession,” he said. “Veterinarians who are doing good things—rendering aid to animals in other states—can now do so legally, without risk of sanction, jail time, or loss of license.”